By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
Jordan Richardson graduated cum laude from Western Washington University. At commencement June 14, she was honored as a Presidential Scholar. Smart and creative, she is also unapologetic when she uses a certain “F word”.
“I am a fat woman,” the 21-year-old said. “I use it as a descriptor. We all have fat — some more than others.”
A 2010 graduate of Mariner High School, the Everett woman now has a bachelor’s degree in communication. For an independent study project, she focused on discrimination based on body size, and on sizeism in media.
Richardson is involved with a Bellingham-based organization and website called Middle Women. The group works to promote self-esteem and positive body image. Richardson’s study project delved into how Middle Women, the Body Positive and other social media sites work to counter sizeism.
“Jordan is incredibly intelligent, thoughtful and articulate,” said Helen Morgan Parmett, an assistant professor in WWU’s Department of Communication Studies. Morgan Parmett nominated Richardson for a Presidential Scholar Award. The annual awards recognize exceptional graduates for scholarship and service.
Morgan Parmett said Richardson engaged other students, getting them to ask questions and think about sizeism, as well as racism and sexism. Richardson is both plus-sized — “I’ve always been a big girl,” she said — and of mixed race, white and African-American.
“She’s really aware of issues of marginalization in our culture. She’s not afraid to talk about it. And she’s invested in solutions,” Morgan Parmett said.
Like thousands of recent college graduates, Richardson is job hunting. She has worked for Nordstrom in clothing sales, has been a fashion blogger, and is an artist. She hasn’t ruled out graduate school.
Her experience with Middle Women changed her thinking about being plus-sized. “It’s been a journey,” Richardson said. “With more confidence, I’m doing more things. I have good friendships.” While different cultures have varying views of beauty, she sees one quality that always stands out. “To be utterly confident, it’s a beautiful thing,” Richardson said.
She needs no reminders that weight bias is real, and that despite her accomplishments some will judge her based on body size alone. In hiring, she said that being overweight often is seen as a sign of laziness or a lack of control. Yet Richardson describes herself as a goal-oriented “control freak” when it comes to her work.
Negative perceptions persist even as a majority of American adults fall into the categories of being overweight or obese. According to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics for 2011-2012, 35 percent of U.S. adults age 20 and over were considered obese, while 69 percent were overweight, including obesity.
Asked about her health, Richardson answered in a thought-provoking way. “It’s my business,” she said. “My health is between me and my doctor. There is health at every size. And every person is different.”
She pointed toward more food for thought when she described a photo project titled, “Wait Watchers.” It was created by Haley Morris-Cafiero, an associate professor and head of the photography department at the Memphis College of Art.
A large woman, Morris-Cafiero set up a camera in public places and, using another photographer, captured hundreds of pictures as passersby saw her.
What those images show is what she calls “the gaze” — people’s split-second reactions to her doing ordinary things: walking, talking on the phone, eating. We can’t know what those strangers are thinking. But in many of the pictures, faces seem to convey disapproval, ridicule or disgust.
From Memphis on Thursday, Morris-Cafiero, 38, said she plans to publish a book about “Wait Watchers.”
“I’m interested in the gaze that’s going on behind me. People have been supportive and gracious,” she said. “They’re thankful someone has depicted the way they feel — not just overweight men and women, but anyone who is ‘other.’”
At WWU, Morgan Parmett said her student from Everett helped the faculty become more aware. “In our department, we’re doing a survey on diversity and inclusiveness, and how our majors feel the department is doing in and out of the classroom. We have a whole list of categories — race, gender, sexual orientation,” she said. “A number of us who have worked with Jordan decided we needed to include size in the questions. This is something significant.”
Richardson sees sizeism as one of the most prevalent types of discrimination.
“It’s so deeply ingrained,” she said. “You’re never going to be arrested for calling me fat on the street. It’s not a hate crime.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Middle Women is a Bellingham-based website and organization that aims to support self-esteem and positive body image. Find out more at: www.middlewomen.com